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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tom Ed Moore's Organ

I met Tom Ed Moore shortly before I met Greg; I found out later that Greg had known Tom Ed for a while.

This was Tom Ed: a wiry, average-height man in his 40s, with a respectable amount of neatly-cut hair, red-rimmed glasses perched librarian-style on his thin nose, a playful Joker's smile, a nasal, long vowel prone voice, with the consonants dropped in like sharp daggers as an after-thought, and an office in the music department dominated by a giant pipe organ. He was also a notoriously private man who never seemed capable of remaining private. Somehow, most of what he tried to keep to himself ended up as gossip, then fact, then common knowledge.

He loved music, which is a good quality to find in a professor of music. I've known professors of literature who hate actual literature, so Tom Ed's genuine affection for the subject of his profession was always a nice change for me--not that I had him as a professor. I would've probably enjoyed his classes, but I never took one. I was too busy learning how to read from a great many people who hated reading.

I don't think I'm talking out of church, as they say, when I mention that Tom Ed, at the time of our meeting, was experiencing a sort of sexual identity crisis. Well, 'crisis' is perhaps too strong of a word; perhaps 'renaissance' is more at the point. Well, 'renaissance' isn't exactly the right word either. 'Awakening'? 'Catharsis'? Something. Anyway, when I met Tom Ed during a production of 'Guys and Dolls' (I played Harry the Horse and Tom Ed was music director), both of us were a few feet away from leaping out into the abyss. One of us kept falling; the other made it back to the safety of the cliff.

During 'Guys and Dolls' rehearsal, I couldn't help but be fascinated with Tom Ed--this languid Southern gentleman with just a bit of fey and a lot of cat in him, leading vocal rehearsals as if he were Madame Sousatzka, fussing over our diction, our pitch, insisting that we not sing the melody for chrissakes but the actual parts written for baritone, tenor, bass, etc. Whatever. I was never a music person, but I gave it a try. Not that I had a choice. Whenever I merely pretended to sing, mouthing the words along with my fellow Guys, Tom Ed would move up to me, push one ear close to my mouth, then give me a disapproving look. "Harry the Horse," he'd say, "thinks he's too good for singing. They shoot horses, don't they?"

Sometime around then, I'd broken up with my long-term girlfriend, announced I was gay, and joined the campus Gay-Straight Alliance, which Tom Ed co-sponsored.

I should point out that Tom Ed was married, had kids. His wife worked for a local spousal-abuse protection facility, doing thankless work in a small southern town (the place was set up like the Corleone compound: huge gates, tall walls, a collection of nice, no-nonsense apartments inhabited by terrified women escaping violent men). Because my dad did most of the printing for this facility, I'd on a few occasions in the past met Tom Ed's wife, and liked and respected her.

Not sure how my friendship with Tom Ed evolved, but it did. During summer--the summer I'd met Greg but hadn't yet gotten into a relationship with him--I house-sat for another professor, and invited Tom Ed over. I did this mostly because I was love-sick; Greg wasn't returning my calls or email, no one else was around, and Tom Ed seemed willing to lend the usual shoulder to cry on. Being actually gay, rather than surreptitiously gay, was new to me, and Tom Ed seemed willing to support and guide me through the messy parts of new emotional wreckage.

The first thing Tom Ed told me was that Greg needed help [insert Greg's back-story here]. "He's had a terrible experience," Tom Ed said to me. "He's not.... It's not a good time for you to be involved with him."

Tom Ed and I were sitting by the pool, the late sunlight of summer fading. The pool was on a hill above the house, surrounded by a fence and dense shrubs and vines and late-blooming flowers. There were dim lights at regular intervals along the path leading up to the pool from the house, and more lights along the fence, and a light at each end of the rectangular pool. The pool lights were the strongest, which meant each ripple in the pool distorted the light on Tom Ed's narrow face.

"Good time or not," I told Tom Ed, "I still want to be with him." For a while, at least. No illusions, even then, that gay relationships were ever for keeps.

"You've got two hands," Tom Ed shot back. "You don't need him."

"Sometimes I need three hands," I replied, and laughed.

A few weeks later, Tom Ed emailed me about taking a quick trip with him to Chicago, to pick up a pipe organ (in pieces) that he'd bought off eBay. "It shouldn't take more than a few days. We're driving straight there and straight back. I just want a companion to accompany me." And so he picked me up not long after. He was dressed in tight, cut-off blue jean shorts, a tight white t-shirt, work boots and white socks pushed down below his calves. "Are we going to Chicago or a gay pride parade?" I asked him. He laughed, then moved his arms up and out, above his head.

"Comfort," he told me, "is always more important than style. Luckily I can do both at once."

Here's where some of Tom Ed's privacy failed. A few days before the Chicago trip, his eldest daughter, still in high school, had revealed she was pregnant. Tom Ed and his wife, obviously wonderful people, told their daughter they'd help raise the baby. No anger, no bitterness, no attempts to force an abortion or adoption (Tom Ed, like Greg, was adopted). On the trip to Chicago, I told Tom Ed I'd heard about the situation with his daughter, and how wonderful I thought it was that he and his wife were being so supportive. I told him why I thought it was wonderful [insert Marc's back-story here]. And he told me he couldn't wait to set up the organ in a shed behind his house, and play it for his grandchild.

Two days in a truck with Tom Ed. To Chicago. Pick up the organ--pipes, keyboard, wood--sleeping in a church parking lot. Back to Florence, AL. I thought about Greg a few times, and mentioned him once. "Don't," Tom Ed told me. "Let it go. Be happy."

Here's a picture of Tom Ed, taken by a friend in 2000:
He died last week, survived by his wife, children, grandchildren and, I suppose, his pipe organ, which I hope he managed to assemble but don't know if he did. In the end, not long after the trip to Chicago, Tom Ed and I stopped having much in the way of conversations. We did a few more shows together--I still remember him storming out of rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal--then Greg and I moved up here and that was that.

As was typical with Tom Ed, things about his private life got around. Who knows what was true, though. He searched, always, for a way to be himself; he also insisted on being a good family man. He was full of love, I think, and just wanted everyone to be happy. And he loved music.

Haven't spoken to him in several years, and of course won't ever speak to him again. When I told Greg Tom Ed had died, he cried. "Everything they say about him was true," Greg sobbed. "But you'd be an idiot to believe it."

Yeah, so, anyway, Dr. Tom Ed Moore. Didn't talk to him for a while, but liked knowing he was around. I'll remember the night by the pool, the thousand nights of rehearsals, the trip to Chicago.


Larry said...

Painfully sad to read about Tom Ed Moore. The larger part of "Tom Ed Moore's Organ"—the 9 ranks of 1939 Austin—came from my church in Mayberry RFD. The last I saw of Tom Ed was in 2000 when he came by a cancer treatment center at which I was staying. He was the first I'd ever run across who not only recognized "Drop That Name" from "Bells are Ringing" but sang the whole piece word- and note-perfect! No contact since then until early this year when we spoke on the phone. He was looking at death then. It was not a happy conversation. I'm distressed I could not arrange to visit him then.

MM said...

Thanks for sharing the story. I hadn't seen Tom Ed in a while, but I think of him often.

I'm sure he not only sang 'Drop That Name,' but did some wonderful improv acting to help the song along :)

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